During pregnancy, parents look forward to the day when they can hold their newborn baby in their arms. As Mom and Dad adjust to having a new family member, their baby also starts to adjust, establishing a bond with the new parents.
It seems simple and often it is, but bonding with your baby can take time. For the parents, it also can take patience, but the results will be well worth it.
The bond and relationship that a mother develops with her child is among the most intimate of relationships.
Dr. Gayani DeSilva, psychiatrist and child and adolescent development expert
Establishing the Bond
Simply put, the bonding process is building a relationship between the baby and the mother and other primary caregivers.
“Bonding between a mother and child begins as early as conception,” said Dr. Gayani DeSilva, psychiatrist and child and adolescent development expert at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, California. “It starts with a physical bond, progresses to a bond based on dependency and then to an emotional bond.”
As a newborn, the infant looks to Mom to address his needs: feeding, changing diapers and soothing. As he grows, those needs change, but the baby still expects his mother to help meet those needs. This lays the groundwork for a strong, secure relationship between mother and child that will last a lifetime.
“The bond and relationship that a mother develops with her child is among the most intimate of relationships,” DeSilva said. “There are numerous points during the process of the relationship that can have a profound effect on the future of the child.”
Building It Step by Step
A key component of the bonding process is Mom responding to her infant. Rahil D. Briggs, director of Pediatric Behavioral Health Services at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, New York, said the mother or another primary caregiver should respond to the baby in a manner that is reliable, consistent and also contingent: When the baby requests a specific action, the mom responds appropriately.
When the adult does so, it sends the baby a message that her needs are being met and she is not alone, Briggs said.
As Mother and Baby adjust to one another outside the womb, it may take time to correctly read one another. Sometimes it’s pretty simple: If the baby cries, the mother goes to the baby and picks her up, checks to see if she is hungry or needs a diaper change and, if so, addresses those needs. Sometimes, however, it’s not so simple, and it may take Mom some time to navigate the situation.
“Learn and understand baby’s cues and signals to determine what baby needs,” said Kay Komie, a licensed clinical social worker and infant mental health specialist with Child & Family Connections at La Rabida Children’s Hospital in Chicago. “Sometimes Mom won’t understand correctly or Baby is not a good signaler.”
But that’s OK, she added. “It’s not like you missed it. You’ll have the opportunity to do it again.”
When not addressing specific needs of your infant, you can do other things to ensure a strong, healthy bond. “Keeping the baby close to the mother, making frequent eye contact, cooing and cuddling, and singing to her baby, can assist with building a good bond with her child,” DeSilva said. “Essentially, the more a mother allows herself to enjoy each moment with her child, the better the bond will be.”
Causes for Concern
It might seem to some mothers as if their infants are not responding to them, making these mothers doubt their bonding skills. There are times when your baby is fussy and crying, and nothing you do seems to soothe him. Other times, it might seem as if the baby doesn’t interact much with Mom.
How do you know when there is a problem? One sign, Briggs said, is the lack of a social smile from the baby by 2 to 3 months of age. Also, if by 5 to 6 months old the baby still doesn’t show a clear preference for the mother or another primary caregiver, then Mom should talk with her pediatrician. The doctor can evaluate the baby and see if there’s a more serious condition to address, such as acid reflux or a lactose intolerance.
Don’t Get Discouraged
After the birth, mother and baby have a lot to learn, and bonding is just one of those lessons. Lack of sleep and feeling frustrated could lead you to doubt yourself, but don’t let the situation get you down.
“It’s unrealistic to be there 100 percent of the time,” Komie said. She recommended looking for support and encouragement from your spouse or partner and other mothers. “Don’t be afraid to share your feelings with other moms,” Komie said. You’ll discover that you are not alone in this situation.
In the end, all the hard work will pay off for both mom and baby. “The bonding process is a delightful dance between mother and child,” DeSilva said. “It is an experience of pure love, and one which both mother and child can revel in and rely on for sustenance.”